Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Unmanned Ship, John Bellows, ONO at The Burlington, 11/19

By Gene Wagendorf III

ONO | Photo Credit: Nathan Gregory (Nitetrotter)
Nitetrotter Fest 2013 kicked off Tuesday at the Burlington with a night dubbed "Ode to ONO." It was a celebration of the weird and powerful, and also a chance to bid farewell to John Bellows, who was playing his last show before leaving Chicago. I unfortunately missed opening act Headless Horse Head, but the buzz was good and you can check out their Nitetrotter Session here or snag their tape on awesome local label Teen River.

Legendary industrial/avant gospel group ONO were up second. The band rolled out a sinister, mechanized groove behind samples of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song; an unsettling combination that highlighted the curiously militarized qualities of the cartoon jingle by forcing it against the band's aphotic maelstrom. The first half of ONO's set expanded seamlessly, giving singer Travis free reign to unleash his hypnotic, grizzly vocals. "The Model Bride," from ONO's pioneering and recently reissued 1983 album Machines That Kill People (Priority Male), reveled in drooping strings and towering waves of distortion that eventually gave way to laser whips and pained howls; the sounds of doomsday on a technologically tortured, distant planet. ONO didn't melt the squalor to silence though, another expert move that was a testament to their ability to defy expectations. Instead, a pulverizing guitar riff and defiant beat emerged, and the song rode out on a kind of new wave garage tantrum.

ONO closed with their starkly reimagined take on The Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties," a version of which can be found on their incredible 2012 release Albino (Moniker Records). The familiar plodding bass line and frothing keys were there, but cloaked in a hurricane of aggressive noise. Travis' vocals crackled with a rare and mesmerizing combination of desperation and authority, rising angelically above the pandemonium. He took only a brief recess from leading the band forward, when he hopped off stage to dance and embrace members of the enthusiastic crowd. The length and sincerity of those embraces stays with me still; it's the perfect snapshot of an ONO performance. There's no doubt in any given set that the band treads some pretty dark waters, but by their finale it's near impossible to come away not covered in goosebumps and radiating with a bizarre sense of hope.

John Bellows & his band | Photo Credit: Nathan Gregory (Nitetrotter)
Following ONO was unorthodox raconteur John Bellows, complete with a full backing band. As dissimilar as the two acts are, they share one common trait: unpredictability. Bellows is a man of many hats- a country singer, a freak folker, a punk rocker and a children's entertainer, to name a few. Tuesday night found him fronting a relaxed, four-piece folk band, guiding them through a series of enchanting ballads. Bellows' vocals were perfectly restrained during a melancholy garage serenade- forceful enough to stand out against his twinkling guitar, but smooth enough to blend into the beat. It was the same kind of nuanced and soulful performance he delivered on his excellent country 7-inch Traveller's Shoes, but even more splendid live.

Bellows exhibited some impressive mood-building skills during his set- no small feat given what he followed. A rowdy, and frankly stinking, backroom bar was transformed by the band's ambling pop folk and whistling melodies until the whole room felt lit by a solitary flickering candle. That isn't to say the atmosphere, or the music, sounded coffee house- far from it. The conclusion of each of Bellows' songs was met with wild applause from the audience and broad smiles on-stage and off. The set wasn't so much about sitting in quiet reverence and watching a performer as it was a mutual celebration of a relationship built over the course of years. The would-be final song featured only Bellows and his cellist, both working in perfect mellow harmony. It was beautiful, but it was neither the closer the crowd wanted nor the one the singer deserved. Urged to play one more, he ripped through a giddy acoustic rocker whose momentum burst into a drunken waltz. Bellows shed his hushed and serious delivery in favor of a frenzied, euphoric wailing that sounded half-punk, half-Edith Bunker. It was a dazzling display of range and of raw energy. If John Bellows never plays another show in Chicago again then he made his exit in grand fashion. Lucky for us, he's not ruled out playing our city again down the road. When and if he does it won't be as a resident, but he'll be more than welcomed.

Unmanned Ship | Photo Credit: Nathan Gregory (Nitetrotter)
The task of closing out Nitetrotter day one fell on the shoulders on Unmanned Ship, a ridiculously powerful instrumental trio who defy genre. A murky, methodical drone drugged the crowd to silence before the detonation of a hemorrhaging beat and air-raid guitars. The song was "End of Cigs," from the band's gnarled, tripped-out LP For Whom The Bowl Tolls (Rotted Tooth). Unmanned Ship conjured a steady ascent into dazed, astronomical terror, only to break the trance with barrages of violent, snarling guitar. It was the sound of the Four Horesmen coming down, or at the very least  the sound of dropping acid in a minefield. That isn't to say, for all their malevolent flexing, that Unmanned Ship is an oppressive band. The trio focused their assaults on exploring just as much as on tearing down. A series of swampy riffs and fizzing bass lines eventually flared into a bright, fluttering distortion- a sonic cloud that the trio then pushed a crystalline melody behind.

That ability tease fragments of subtle grace into their generally blistering assault is one of Unmanned Ship's greatest strengths, and the fact that they dose it out sparingly makes it all the more satisfying when it happens. That said, the trio tore through much of their set like a William Burroughs fever-dream, razing everything within earshot. It was sludgy, it was over-the-top, and it was loud.

Special thanks to Nathan Gregory of Nitetrotter for the photos from last night. If you enjoyed this, like us on Facebook and follow Gene on Twitter

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